You don't often see a set of caribou antlers used in a modern dance piece -- certainly not on the head of a dancer wearing a long, frilly, fairy-tale princess gown. It's one of several arresting images in Pulse Dance Company's "Ever After," a new work that draws on folkloric archetypes and Grimm Brothers' characters to explore life and change.
"I think deer are prevalent in a lot of fairy tale stories because they shed their antlers," said company founder Stephanie Wonchala. "They're a vehicle for change. And, because we're in Alaska, I used caribou antlers. It's an Alaska twist."
Wonchala is also the founder of Pulse, billed as "Alaska's youngest contemporary dance group" and now in its third season. The company is a labor of love for the members, who've kept their dream of a modern dance troupe alive on shoestring budgets.
"I give my dancers small stipends," Wonchala said. "But in three years I haven't paid myself once. I literally work around the clock, but I just feel like this is extremely important both to me and to the dancers. It gives them an outlet to create and it's something the community doesn't have. If we weren't doing it, it would be really sad."
Born in Ohio, Wonchala spend her youth in Alaska and Germany, where she has relatives. The German connection got her interested in fairy tales. "Ever since I was little I've had an obsession with castles."
She graduated from Chugiak High School, where she was a cheerleader and member of the school's now-defunct drill and dance team. She'd been studying dance "for fun" since she was 4, but started taking it seriously as a student at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
The catalyst came when she saw a startling and powerful piece by Brian Jeffery and Marianne Kim, "The Image After."
"It was the most monumental work of performance art I'd ever seen," she said. "It made me think, made me cry."
She graduated three years ago and "felt kind of empty. I wanted to continue to keep doing what Brian had started."
So she started her own company, recruiting other dancers to "work toward a larger goal."
"Ever After" may be the group's most challenging and effective work to date, a evening-length, serious, modern ballet piece that melds classical technique with contemporary moves in an effort to relate a multi-layered story.
It focuses on an unnamed character danced by Joyce Mayer, first seen as a very old woman. She reclines on a mattress -- which might be her deathbed -- and is visited by three more dancers who represent the three roles women usually have in fairy tales, Wonchala said, "Maiden, matron and crone." They're something like the ghosts in Charles Dickens' "Christmas Carol," she said, or the trio representing the stages of life in Edward Albee's play "Three Tall Women."
The mattress disappears. The old woman's youth is restored, her rags replaced by a scarlet cloak -- a reference to Red Riding Hood. Other scenes suggest Cinderella, Snow White and similar characters. The scenes are analogues for life passages, described in gesture and masks. There are rabbits -- "my comic relief," Wonchala said. And a wicked wolf.
In the end, reviewing the events of the years, the old woman, stripped to skin-colored leotards with the other dancers, "comes to a place of enlightenment," Wonchala said. "A place of accepting past experiences, even if they're not good ones. They're what's made you who you are, and who you are is beautiful."
Showtimes will be at 8 p.m. on Jan. 25 and 26, and 6 p.m. on Jan. 27 at Alaska Pacific University's Grant Hall auditorium. Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com.
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM